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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Sunday, November 20, 2011


"There is in each of us an ancient force that takes and an ancient force that gives. A man finds little difficulty facing that place within himself where the taking force dwells, but it’s almost impossible for him to see into the giving force without changing into something other than man. For a woman, the situation is reversed."-- Paul Atreides describing his own transformation in Frank Herbert's DUNE.

"The more developed Idea resulting from this victory over several lower Ideas or objectifications of will, gains an entirely new character by taking up into itself from every Idea over which it has prevailed a strengthened analogy. The will objectifies itself in a new, more distinct way. It originally appears in generatio aequivoca; afterwards in assimilation to the given germ, organic moisture, plant, animal, man. Thus from the strife of lower phenomena the higher arise, swallowing them all up, but yet realising in the higher grade the tendency of all the lower."-- Schopenhauer, Book 1, part 27, THE WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION.

The above quotes both deal with concepts of transformation.  Herbert's fictional protagonist describes a mental shift from one set of gender-oriented priorities to another; a shift brought after he imbibes the vision-inducing Water of Life. Schopenhauer's philosophical observation is far more abstract.  He takes Plato's Ideas, which were both essential and eternal by nature, and gives them a post-Kantian spin, in which the Ideas can assume different "grades" of relative perfection, all of which are objectifications of the true "thing-in-itself," the Universal Will. 

It will be noted that the Schopenhauer quote, unlike the Herbert quote, contains no reference to concepts of gender.  However, the "gloomy philosopher" had some definite thoughts on the subject; thoughts that make comicdom's Dave Sim sound like Betty Friedan by comparison.

From the essay "On Women:"

Hence, it will be found that the fundamental fault of the female character is that it has no sense of justice . This is mainly due to the fact, already mentioned, that women are defective in the powers of reasoning and deliberation; but it is also traceable to the position which Nature has assigned to them as the weaker sex. They are dependent, not upon strength, but upon craft; and hence their instinctive capacity for cunning, and their ineradicable tendency to say what is not true. For as lions are provided with claws and teeth, and elephants and boars with tusks, bulls with horns, and cuttle fish with its clouds of inky fluid, so Nature has equipped woman, for her defence and protection, with the arts of dissimulation; and all the power which Nature has conferred upon man in the shape of physical strength and reason, has been bestowed upon women in this form.

I'm not inherently opposed to the notion that genders may be characterized according to what one observes to be statistically-dominant virtues or vices.  The usual mush-headed responses to such characterizations-- "We're all individuals," "If you label me, you negate me"-- get no hearing in my court.  But I think that even though at times Schopenhauer's characterizations may ring a bell of familiarity, on the whole said characterizations carry less explanatory value than the observations of the 20th-century author of DUNE.  In addition, as presented here Schopenhauer's animadversions on the female sex are something of a betrayal of his post-Kantian project.

As I elaborated here, no post-Kantian project is viable unless it stresses the dual influence of natural and cultural influences.  Schopenhauer, anticipating Freud, chooses to define women in terms of lack: women have "cunning" because they lack "physical strength and reason."  The first is an aspect of demonstrable natural law.  The second lack, if it exists, can only be demonstrated through manifestations within humankind's cultural cosmos, through a rigorous philosophical definiton of what reason is.  Doubtless Schopenhauer felt he defined reason in other writings, but since he does not do so in respect to its purported differences between men and women, the assertion remains baseless.  Most of what Schopenhauer "proves" about woman's natural inferiority is based in his proto-evolutionary meditations on natural law (ON WOMEN was published eight years before ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES, incidentally).  I suggest that natural law, both in Schopenhauer's time and our own, is about as much use in understanding culture as a hammer is for turning on a light-switch.  This type of reductionism is unworthy of one of philosophy's paramount thinkers.

Further, by characterizing female nature as something as unchanging as one of Plato's Ideas, Schopenhauer betrays his concept of "grades" of ideation.  Throughout "On Women" there is no sense that any woman's nature can be altered or subsumed by more "perfect" Ideas.  By contrast, both Plato and Dave Sim allowed that some women were capable of raising themselves to a level of masculine competence and insight. One need not agree with those worthies on their definitions of same; it's enough to note that they, unlike Schopenhauer, recognized that such a transformation was possible.  Frank Herbert's fictional meditations support this concept of transformation as well, though one must note that they are philosophical observations that grow out of a fictional structure.

It's just as possible for a mush-head to be insulted by Herbert's gender-characterizations as by Schopenhauer's: to be so obsessed with a purported individuality that one cannot recognize the broad mythic truth of Herbert's yang-like "ancient force that takes" and yin-like "ancient force that gives."  But even without the sort of visionary transformation brought about by the Water of Life, Herbert's narrative tapestry is broad enough to depict any number of cultural transformations.  Thus a male character like Liet-Kynes can function primarily as a nurturant force, attempting to bestow fecundity upon the desert-planet Arrakis.  Similarly, his daughter Chani becomes (unlike the majority of Fremen women) a skilled fighter, and in one chapter she kills one of Paul Atreides' challengers to spare Paul the trouble.

Yet despite all the personal prejudices that tainted Schopenhauer's view of the Fair Sex, his concept of the Will and gradations of ideation remain vital, and can be fruitfully applied to notions of gender transformation even though the philosopher would have certainly disapproved of such applications.  In 2-13-09 I wrote:

What is the cultural significance of action-heroines?

It's not that they make female readers feel more empowered, though there's not anything wrong with that.

It's not that they make male readers either more empathetic or more horny, though there's nothing wrong with either of those.

It's simply this:

The action-heroine is a better symbol of the Schopenhaurean Will than the male action-hero.

I let this particular field of investigation lie fallow for over two years, partly because I knew that re-reading Schopenhauer would take a fair amount of labor.  It's fortuitous that when the topic came to my attention once more, it was right at a time I'd just finished re-reading DUNE, which glosses certain aspects of Schopenhauer's beliefs just as I found they did for the writings of Paglia in this essay.

In the next installment of WHAT WOMEN WILL, I'll explore a little more as to the archetypal associations that arise when the woman is "Taker" rather than "Giver."

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